Admiring the soldiers and their machine guns from a distance I walked through Athens airport, sweating and tired. It had been a 22 hours flight and I had not slept well. I was hungry and starting to get cranky. Seemingly out of nowhere two lanky and dark men had intercepted us. My relatives. I was hugged by each of them for what seemed like several minutes. Straight away I felt comfortable and 100% accepted by them. Each one felt like a rock and each one was very sweaty. I was a soft, white, city boy. What a funny contrast I must have looked against my relatives. In any case, after the expected tears and kisses and hugs we caught a taxi to an apartment we were staying in overnight before going to my ancestral island, Lefkada. I hopped into the taxi but things were around the wrong way. The driver was on the left side, next to the kerb. I had never seen my grandfather a passenger in a car. He was always the driver so it was a little strange to see him sitting in the passengers seat. We all tried to pile into the taxi but the driver started to protest saying he could only take four adults. My grandad said there were indeed 4 adults but the driver pointed to me and said he takes as much space as an adult. ‘He’s only 9 years old!’ My grandmother protested.
My Uncles politely got out and got into another taxi. My grandparents were angry. They kept arguing with the driver. At one point the driver threatened to kick us out in the middle of Athens in the suffocating afternoon heat. Again my Grandmother started to protest about how things had changes since she was here last. How rude and disrespectful the taxi driver was. He then said something that to this day still has an impact on me. He said something like ‘Who do you foreigners think you are coming here and judging how things are not as good as before….’. To put it into better context he went on to say how the people had survived civil war after junta after corrupt governments and so were jaded. But that didn’t matter to me. I was considered a foreigner here too. At home I was a foreigner. Not considered a real Aussie because I was a wog. In Greece I was a foreigner too because I was not born there. So where the frig did I belong? Who would accept me? My grandparents laughed it off. In their hearts they were Greek and there was nothing anyone could say to shake that identity. As for me I was a fat little wog boy at home, and a fat white Aussie in Greece.
Our Athens stay would come in the middle of our trip. There was plenty of time as we were going to be there for 6 months.
I don’t remember much about the apartment we were staying in overnight other than it was a lot smaller than our 2 bedroom plus one sunroom unit back home. I slept right through the next morning until late. I was woken up and pushed into the shower by my Grandmother. We were in a rush to catch the coach to Lefkada. My Uncles has already bought our tickets and were patiently waiting for us at the bus terminal. A new adventure for me. This time I got to sit in the window seat which didn’t matter in the coach as you could easily see through the windows wherever you sat. When we boarded the coach it was already almost full. My two Uncles were sitting closer to the rear while My Grandparents and I were sitting in the front half of the coach. It was a hot day again and the aircon was blasting polar air right onto my face. At the back of the coach were strange looking people or more accurately they were dressed in a strange way. Everyone else on the coach and in Athens wore a dress or skirt/top or trouser/shirt style. But the people in the back of the coach wore more elaborate clothes. Clothes that looked too hot for the beginning of Summer. The man wore black baggy trousers a long sleeved white fluffy shirt and a black vest with colourful patterns and a plain black jacket. The two women appeared to be wearing layers of clothing. A skirt that looked as though it had several layers of thick cloth, with something that looked like a colourful apron overlaying the top layer. Under the apron like garment the women wore a long sleeve shirt without a collar and then a smaller and more colourful vest than the man. All in all they look very uncomfortable in those clothes. They kept fanning themselves despite the polar air. Next to them was something even more out of the ordinary.
At the back of the coach on one side piled on top of each other were several cages of chicken, and on the other side was a goat tied to a seat. These animals belonged to the people at the back of the coach. Everyone but my grandparents and I did not react to this. I think my grandparents had been living in Australia for too long and become accustomed to a modern Western way of life, which parts of Greece were. But back in 1977 many parts of rural Greece were not part of the modern Western world. And for the locals these two worlds happily co-existed. For me it was weird, for my grandparents it was a source of pride that they no longer lived like this. Unfortunately my grandmother in particular would quite haughtily proclaim how more advanced Sydney was to anything you could find in Greece.
Traveling through the streets on the way out of Athens I was disappointed there was not a sight of any military activity: no tanks, no soldiers. My image of Greece was starting to change. As was my preconceived image of the people. In Australia, many of my relatives and friends of the family were fair – not surfie blonde hair, blue-eyed fair – but brown to dirty blonde hair, lightly tanned, soft. I thought the Greeks would be even more like this but no. All I saw were brown to bronze complexion, black hair, and everyone looked like they had a hard body. It didn’t take long to get out of Athens. My grandmother noted that in an hour you’ve gone from one end of Athens to the other, whereas it would take you the better part of a day to do the same in Sydney. That is not actually the case unless you catch public transport which is mainly what my grandmother knew.
My grandmother had led an interesting, difficult life. She was born in Lefkada, her mother dying while giving birth to her, very common in rural Greece at the beginning of the 20th Century. Child mortality was also high which is why many families had lots of children, to ensure than 2 or three would survive to adulthood. In the years following the wars public health improved through all of Greece which meant all the children born survived in adulthood leading to families of 10, 11, 12 or more. This in turn to more poverty where the family plot of land, or the household income was not enough to feed and clothe and educate the whole family.
Even though my grandmother never knew her mother she idolised her father, Alexandros, after whom I am named. He was a favourite of not only his village bit of surrounding villages too. He remarried a woman who treated my grandmother the way stepmothers treat step children in fairy tales. My grandmother was not allowed to go to school because she has to cook and clean and look after her half-brothers. She never complained because she saw how her fathers new wife made him happy and she would never take that form him because he loved my grandmother as much as she loved him. My grandmother only knew poverty. She would tell me how during the war they were so hungry that they would boil up old shoes, which were after all made of animal skin i.e. leather. I can’t imagine that. But I have seen it documented in a couple of places. The war seemed to define both of my maternal grandparents. So even though she grew up knowing only poverty she was very proud that she escaped all of that.
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… to be continued …